Roadmaps reportedly on table: At what stage are Russia-Belarus integration talks now?

First Deputy Prime Minister Mikalai Snapkou said last week that Belarus and Russia had almost completely agreed on a package of integration documents. reminds what documents Minsk and Moscow have been preparing to sign for 2.5 years, what disputes are going on and when the negotiations will be finished.

Where did the integration roadmaps come from?

Their development was the result of the crisis in Belarusian-Russian relations, which began in late 2018. Alyaksandr Lukashenka wanted to receive compensation from Russia for the tax manoeuvre, a discount on gas and the removal of all restrictions on the access of Belarusian companies to the Russian market. The Kremlin responded by saying that this was possible only after deepening integration within the Union State.

Illustrative photo: AK / Belsat

In December 2018, the then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that Belarus could count on economic subsidies only if the Union State Treaty of December 8, 1999 was implemented. He noted that Russia is ready to create a single emission centre, a single customs, court and audit chamber. Medvedev’s statement went down in history as ‘the Kremlin ultimatum’. Lukashenka accused Moscow of blackmail and said that Belarus would never join Russia. But he did not refuse further integration, setting his own conditions: first, the issue of energy resources and access to the Russian market must be resolved.

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A special working group was set up. As a result of its work, the governments of Belarus and Russia approved a draft action program to deepen integration and a list of 31 roadmaps. It was expected that by December 2019, governments will agree on all documents to submit to the heads of state for signature. Most of the maps were indeed agreed, but a number of fundamental issues remained unresolved. Putin and Lukashenka did not agree, as a result, the signing of integration documents, scheduled for December 2019, failed.

Why is the issue of integration maps hanging?

From the end of 2018 to the beginning of 2020, the Kremlin has shown great interest in deeper integration with Belarus and the signing of roadmaps. Minsk was demonstratively pressured: in revenge for Lukashenka’s intransigence in the negotiations, Russia in early 2020 suspended oil supplies to Belarus for almost two months.

A number of experts and the media explained the Kremlin’s activity in this matter by Vladimir Putin‘s intention to solve the problem of preserving personal power through the acquisition of Belarus. The Russian leader allegedly planned to circumvent the ban on being president for more than two consecutive terms by creating a new state with a new constitution. However, in early 2020, Putin took a different path: he decided to nullify his presidential term by simply changing the Constitution of the Russian Federation. After that, the urgency of the Belarusian issue decreased.

Illustrative photo. Woman is voting at polling station in remand prison Nr 1 during referendum. Ryazan, Russia. July 1, 2020. Photo: Alexander Rumin / TASS / Forum

In addition, 2020 brought new challenges that pushed the issue of integration maps into the background: the coronavirus pandemic, the collapse of oil prices and the elections in Belarus. By the end of the summer of 2020, the talks were completely frozen. Then they restarted, but went on very slowly.

It is possible that the Kremlin did not force the issue of roadmaps due to the unstable domestic political situation in Belarus. At least this was said by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in September 2020:

“I am convinced that as soon as the situation normalizes, work on promoting integration processes will resume.”

What are these integration documents about?

The specific content and even the full list of roadmaps (programs) remains unknown. Paradoxically, one of the main sources of information about road maps is still an article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, published in September 2019. The publication wrote that the integration program envisages ‘partial unification of the two economic systems from January 2021’. It is said to be a single tax system, a single foreign trade regime and a civil code, almost unified banking sectors, general state regulation of the economy and a single regulator of the energy market. Customs policy will be unified up to the common customs service.

“We are talking about a rather radical project: it is a partial economic integration at the level of no less than in the European Union, and in some respects – similar to confederate or even federal states,” said the publication.

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Later, Russian and Belarusian officials in their statements partially confirmed the information to Kommersant, although loud words like ‘federation’ or ‘confederation’ were naturally avoided. Moreover, it turned out that there was the 31st map, which addressed issues of supranational bodies, a single currency and a single issuance centre.

“There is a so-called 31st road map, it’s a plan of building supranational bodies. The parliament, may be the president, and so on,” Lukashenka said in December 2019. But he stressed that he and Putin had decided to postpone the issue.

In August 2021, Lukashenka confirmed that the parties had abandoned the 31st map.

On what issues can Moscow and Minsk not agree?

From the very beginning, official Minsk demanded from Moscow discounts on gas to the level of the Smolensk region, compensation for losses from the tax manoeuvre and equal conditions of access to the Russian market. It is with the resolution of these fundamental issues that the Belarusian side links further integration. Lukashenka had earlier promised that otherwise he would not sign road maps. “Excuse me, who needs such an alliance?” he complained in November 2019. But Moscow, in turn, wants to resolve the issues of union building first, and then consider oil and gas issues. This fundamental divergence of approaches determined the nature of all negotiations.

Illustrative photo. Source: Belsat

“In the process of negotiations, the core of interests from each side was revealed quite quickly. For Russians, these are issues of tax and customs regulation, that is, transparency, tracking of goods on their territory. For us – the conditions of cooperation in energy and access to the Russian market. In the whole package of economic integration agreements, the main difficulty in our negotiation issues was manifested in the mutual connection of these meeting interests,” First Deputy Prime Minister Mikalai Snapkou said on August 17.

As a result, since December 2019, the main controversy has revolved around integration maps on energy (gas and oil) and the general tax code. At least until the summer of 2021, the parties got stuck in these matters.

Have the parties made progress in resolving the disputed issues?

Integration negotiations are completely non-transparent, and public statements by officials are often contradictory. However, it seems that in the last few months some progress in the negotiations has been made.

In April 2021, during a visit to Moscow, Lukashenka said that 2 or 3 maps remained to be agreed on, including the one on taxation. And in June, the Russian ambassador to Minsk Yevgeny Lukyanov said that the work on the coordination of 27 of the 28 integration programs was actually completed (the package from 31 maps was reformatted into 28 programs). According to the diplomat, the program in the field of tax policy is ‘generally accepted’, and the parties have not yet agreed on energy.

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In fact, Lukashenka confirmed the ambassador’s words during the Great Conversation on August 9, noting that the only issue that remained unresolved is gas.

“If we are in a union, if we see a perspective, we need to equalize prices both there and here. Or, as they say, set them free. If we want, we buy natural gas there, for example, from Gazprom. Gazprom can’t offer it? Then we go to another company that extracts natural gas, you have a lot of them. That is, trade in these goods should be free. Hence the prices. We do not ask for low prices. We want equal prices,” he stressed.

Illustrative photo. Alyaksandr Lukashenka meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Minsk, Belarus. November 26, 2020. Photo: Valery Sharyfulin / TASS / Forum

Interestingly, Lukashenka did not mention the issue of oil: he probably received some guarantees in this regard. Earlier, following a meeting with Putin on July 13, the Kremlin said that politicians had agreed on the amount of credit support for Minsk in connection with the tax manoeuvre in the oil sector. The conditions of such support, however, were not specified.

When can integration documents be signed?

“Significant progress has been made. In fact, we are talking about the coordination of technical issues… There is great confidence that in the coming months the whole package of union programs will be formed,” said Prime Minister Raman Halouchanka in July.

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First Deputy Prime Minister Mikalai Snapkou said this week that Moscow and Minsk have now reached an almost fully agreed package of integration documents, which includes the main directions and 28 sectoral union programs, as well as draft decisions of the Union State Council of Ministers and the Supreme State Council on their approval.

Earlier it was stated that the meeting of the Supreme State Council is scheduled for September-October. However, this does not mean that we should expect the signing of documents in the autumn of 2021. So far there are no guarantees that the gas issue will be resolved, especially in the coming months. The experience of the past two and a half years shows that the talks between Moscow and Minsk are still very slow.

Illustrative photo. AK / Belsat

Lukashenka has not yet shown a willingness to make significant concessions to the Kremlin, and the Kremlin has recently avoided openly pressuring Lukashenka on integration issues, waiting for a better time to attack. Therefore, it is possible that in the coming months the integration programs will remain in the negotiating swamp.

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